Judaism and Digital Humanities etc

As I tap away at my keyboard these last few weeks and also continue my teaching at graduate and post-graduate level, I’ve been coming back again and again to the issue of the changing nature of being Jewish, studying Judaism and describing Judaism with the advance of the digital world. The academic world of Jewish studies (and associated fields) has certainly been affected by the advent of digital technologies – the proliferation of blogs, wikis, manuscripts, digitised texts and so on. This book looks like a fascinating contribution to that conversation. But my interest is wider than the traditional solitary practice of academic research (though the solitary nature is changing in multidisciplinary teams). As I teach online courses and work with students face-to-face in a classroom I’m conscious of the way that digital is impacting on the way we study texts, access materials, construct a conversation around the texts and so on. So one question is whether and how the modes of Jewish learning and the associated discourses are changing in a digital age? Miller, Grant and Pomson’s Handbook of Jewish Education has a chapter devoted to this, but I think the conversation goes further. The classical mode of studying Jewish texts has been chavruta – partnered learning where there is a triangle of study partners and the text. How does this change when the texts, the dictionaries, the translations, the interpretations and so on are interacted with in a digital form? How does this affect literacy, how does it affect the conversation, how does it deepen or make more shallow the learning and engagement? Accessibility seems greater but my sense is that is really only surface level and coherence and depth may in due course suffer. These questions are further heightened with distance chavruta possibilities (using technology like skype, google hangout etc).

The issues of being Jewish have been covered more widely when it comes to technology and digital advances – whether it’s social networking, changing communities, locus of authority, access to knowledge and so on. But we need to constantly revisit these questions to examine how they’re being affected, why models fail and others succeed. Even the field of online responsa/ask the rabbi has surely changed the way we understand Jewish practice.

Finally, the idea of ‘Judaism’. I was reflecting on Moshe Halbertal’s book ‘The People of the Book’ and thinking it needs a new chapter, something that reflects the instability of contemporary 21st century Judaism. Perhaps ‘People of the web’? The way we understand Judaism is changing. Rabbi Jason Miller is already contributing to this field on his blog. I think we need to take more seriously that the ruptures of Jewish memory, the role of Jewish history, literacy, normative and formative natures of texts have all changed and are being changed. I wonder what a conversation about this looks like without becoming almost instantly out-of-date.

Anyway, just some brief thoughts pre-Shabbat!

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